Immigration and all that

Vincent Heeringa, writing in Idealog, has an interesting look at why New Zealand does not have a strong anti-immigration strain to its politics. Tldr: immigration is very important economically and we don’t have significant refugee flows.


It is certainly true that immigration is economically important. Migration (flows out and in) has added 30 per cent to the population since 1991. That is a lot of new workers and consumers.

Here is the Treasury from the May Economic and Fiscal Update (page 4):

Screenshot 2016-07-12 10.37.53

Migration grows the economy (the real GDP bit). But it isn’t all sunshine and lollipops. The Treasury says migration is expanding activity in low productivity sectors (all those new people need housing and restaurants), which means we are not as well off as we could be if they all worked in high-tech or our construction sector was more productive.


I am less certain than Mr Heeringa that the economics of immigration drives the politics of it particularly. (People vote against their apparent economic interests all the time: see Brexit, and What’s the Matter with Kansas).

It might just be that New Zealanders are more positive about immigration.

This is a chart from a 2008 paper by Colleen Ward and Anne-Marie Masgoret, based on survey results in New Zealand and internationally. The proposition people were put was: “It is a good thing for a society to be made up of people from different races, religions and cultures”.

div positivity  copy

Here is some other data from that paper, reported in a 2011 Department of Labour paper by the same authors plus Melanie Vauclair. Some results from a survey in 2004/05 of attitudes towards immigrants and immigration:

Screenshot 2016-07-12 10.52.21

Neilsen, in its 2014 Quality of Life Survey, report results from six regional councils on perceptions of the impacts of greater cultural diversity. Fifty seven per cent of people asked said that greater cultural diversity makes their area a better or much better place to live. Fourteen percent thought greater cultural diversity made their area a worse or much worse place to live.

Screenshot 2016-07-12 11.08.39



On the numbers themselves, these are 12 month rolling totals of monthly net permanent and long-term migration to/from Australia since April 1978. You can see what looks like the start of the turn of the tide. Maybe folks in Australia are going to stop coming home in such large numbers, or a few more people from here are going to pick up sticks. The Treasury forecasts that net migration will return to its usual trend by 2018.

net plt tofrom australia

The data is here.


At the Moxie Sessions we have talked about immigration a couple of times. Once in Session 10 on the immigration system itself and whether have the settings right, and once more last year in Session 33 on immigration as a way to transform the economy (slowly). Heady stuff.

Also there is a recent book on the subject.


It’s the little things that get you

I have never had much time for Rafael Nadal. I always thought it great theatre when he and Roger Federer were the kings of the court, lining up yet again to do battle in some final or other (19 at last count – 8 of those Grand Slams), crucial only for the moments that it lasted in the public attention. The contrast was stark between the fiery, scowling Spaniard with an apparent abundance of personal rituals (not to say tics) during play, and the calm, mechanical Swiss who was criticised primarily for seeming emotionless. Nadal always seemed a little unprofessional, wild, or unfinished to me, and my conservative sportsmanship code apparently could not find a place for him in my heart.

But then I had the privilege to see him in action at Wimbledon just recently in the second-round game that he lost to rank outsider Lukas Rosol. And I saw things that I have never seen before, restricted as I have been to the limited view provided by the television cameras. His rituals, once annoying, became soothing, the calming pre-cursor to each point on serve. His play was contained. His energy seemed more directed and controlled from the distance necessarily imposed by my none-too-flashy seat. The focus as a spectator was on how he moved about the court and the strategy of the game rather than the distorted facial expressions accompanying his shots that are the usual focus of television close-ups and replays.

Ritualistically speaking

His serving ritual, when seen in full, seemed much less distracting and strangely appropriate. Picking his shorts out of his arse, aligning his already-aligned hair with a quick swipe to each temple, the way he bounces the ball – these things were lost in a much longer process. Let me see if I can describe it, so you can adopt it the next time you play tennis with ball-people and towel-holders:

  • Win (or lose) the point
  • Walk to the back of the court making the gentle two finger pointing signal with the index and middle fingers to the person holding the towel (not for Nadal the silly “I am washing my face” signal – that belongs to lesser players)
  • Take the towel from the towel-holder with your right hand at the same time as holding out the racquet with the left, on which the ball-person will put three balls, always in a tight triangle. Wipe your face.
  • As you turn back to the court, throw the towel to your towel-holder and walk back to the line considering the three balls on your racquet
  • Set yourself up on the service line, select one ball to discard, and drop it to your feet, timing the drop so that a gentle backswing of your racquet (remember you are left-handed) is sufficient to catch it just at your feet and send it unerringly in the direction of the ballperson behind and to the right of you.
  • Put one of the two remaining balls in your pocket, and then lean on to your front foot, pull your shorts out of your arse, adjust your hair, bounce the remaining ball as many times as seems appropriate (more than Roddick, fewer than Djokovic) and play on.

The god of small things

Tennis is an interesting game because it turns on a very few points. Three or four crucial moments can make the difference between winning and losing. These are the stats from the Nadal Rosol game:

  • Rosol won only two more points than Nadal overall (139 to 137), and only one more game (26 to 25).
  • Rosol had 13 more unforced errors but 24 more winners.
  • The percentage of first serves that went in is identical (67%). Rosol won a slightly higher percentage of first service points, but a slightly lower percentage of second service points. They both ended up winning the same number of points when they were serving (102), and Rosol had just one more break of serve (4 to Nadal’s 3).

Tennis is a game where winning points is crucial, but not as crucial as when you win them.

When you win

When I meandered in to my seat, it was the tail end of the fourth set, won by Nadal 6-2 in 32 minutes. The general expectation, if I may be so bold as to summarise the views of my fellow section-dwellers, was that Nadal was going to come out on top after a signficant scare and go on to his rightful place in the semi-finals against Andy Murray. Now that would be a game!

The big question at that point was not who was going to win, but whether they were going to play the fifth set that night, or hold it over until the next day. The people responsible for making such decisions came out on the court, some folks got up to leave, expecting the worst, the hubbub in the crowd lightened as if we wanted to eavesdrop on the umpires’ deliberations, they consulted the players, and Nadal was seen to shake his head visibly.

“Oh dear”, said the woman behind me, “I guess that’s it”.

And then they announced that there would be a half hour delay while they closed the roof before play would recommence. Ten thousand people who had misread Nadal’s head shake jumped to their feet to dissipate their joy and relief with applause.

Forty odd minutes later silence descended over the stadium as Nadal served to start the last set. A confused pigeon flapped around the roof. Rosol broke in the first game, and from there the games went with serve. At four games to two I really started to think that Rosol would actually do it – not that I wanted him to by that point (somehow Nadal had become the underdog for me already). The crowd was divided. The closer Rosol got to victory, the more they seemed to will Nadal to come back.

Through the fifth set Nadal was slowing play down. A good strategy. Rosol has never been ranked better than number 65 in the world. Nadal has been in the top three in the world for years. Rosol was clearly playing out of his skin if not out of his league, and he was not going to be able to do that forever.

But then it was five games to three. Nadal serving. Rosol gets his nose in front at 15-30, but his shot hits the net and falls back – an explosive sigh from the crowd – and Nadal takes the game. Five games to four. Rosol to serve for the match.

Now the crowd seems behind him. Rosol plays it up a little. A few knee bends on the line. He lets it build. He knows this is the biggest game of his life. Bang. Bang. 30-0. He is two points away. Ace. One to go. And another ace to finish. No one can believe it. Hard to know if Rosol does either. Let alone Nadal.


The scale of Rosol’s acheivement was not yet matched by his popular recognition. There was a man walking about our part of the stands with a camera between games at the latter stages of the fifth set looking to interview anybody who knew Rosol’s first name. No one did (Lukas, for the record).

Commentators have pointed out Nadal’s sportsmanlike nature, stopping to sign autographs on his way out of the stadium after his worst result in seven years. For me the more powerful gesture of the gentleman athlete was the way he gently picked up the racquet that Rosol released into the net in jubilation at his victory, and calmly handed it back, as if to say “you’ll need this where you are going”.

In the event, Nadal has not played since – a knee injury ruling him out of the Olympics as well as subsequent events. And Rosol lost in straight sets to Kohlschreiber in the next round.

Save the Kiwi

I know you are as fascinated as I am by Wikipedia’s list of official (and unofficial) national birds. It isn’t clear to me quite how a nation decides that it needs a national winged icon, nor how it decides from amongst the many options which one it will pick as its primary feathered friend.

But recent analysis (you can download it here) reveals some riveting facts.

  • A total of 107 countries in the world have at least one national bird. This is from a total of 193 members of the United Nations or 206 countries in the world (counting twelve disputed ones). So not much over half. A disappointing effort really. Those national bird enthusiasts still have a lot of ground to cover.
  • Four countries (Brazil, Ireland, Mexico, and Trinidad and Tobago) are leading the pack with two national birds each. I assume these nations ran closely-contested beauty pageants or similar, and in the end the judge declared that the head-to-head final was too close to call. “Everyone’s a winner”.
  • For one of those countries there is a clear pecking order: the Rufous-bellied Thrush (I kid you not) is the only official Brazilian National Bird. The other, much-more-commonly-named Golden Parakeet must suffer the ignominy of unofficial status. Surely a downer when s/he is at the bath with his/her bird buddies. Perhaps they are polite enough not to tweet about it.
  • Not all birds are hatched equal. The Andean Condor soars above others, with four nations (Boliva, Chile, Columbia and Ecuador) claiming it for their own. The African Fish Eagle, from the name I guess it is a cross between a pescatorial life form and a bird of prey, is the top choice of three – Zimbabwe, Zambia and South Sudan. And good on South Sudan for not just focusing on the big issues (like the war with its neighbour to the north) but also attending to the more minor ones in the short time since it became independent last year.
  • There are some odder nest-mates also, with Scotland and Mexico sharing the Golden Eagle (who knows how this comes about when they are not even in the same continent), Pakistan and Iraq splitting the Chukar Partridge, and Estonia and Austria divvying up the Barn Swallow, which sounds rather painful if you think about it. Swallow. Barn.
  • The Turquoise-browed Motmot of Nicaragua gets the award for the longest bird name. And special mentions to the Magnificent Frigatebird of Antigua and Barbuda, and the Siamese Fireback Pheasant of Thailand (no surprise there) for general awesomeness in the name department.
  • Not so the good people of Sweden, who are side by side with the Common Blackbird. Was there nothing better available? Sadly the decision-makers in Belgium (Common Kestrel) and the Bhutan (Common Raven) seem to have been advised by the same tired team of unambitious ornithologists.
  • It is clearly tricky times for the Palestinian Sunbird, proposed but apparently not yet accepted as the official National Bird of the Palestinian territories.
  • And what is the message from Mauritius, who have chosen the Dodo as a national emblem?

Most shocking of all, the Kiwi, that widely beloved (if a little shy) national icon that has already given its title to our national nickname is reportedly not yet officially our National Bird. Someone should form a civil society group on this and lobby for an Act of Parliament or whatever needs to be done. Perhaps its unofficiality is connected with the fact that it spends so much time hiding from the limelight. Great impact but not much visibility.

Lastly, you can decide for yourself what you think on bird beauty from the pics here. But for my money the Magnificent Frigatebird looks pretty well named (the Magnificent part rather than the Frigate part); it is obviously hard to get the Burmuda Petrel to sit still; the Indian Peacock takes the best photos (although the East African Crowned-Crane is pretty impressive too); and the Clay-colored Thrush (good colour spotting, bird namer) gets the award for the most apparent bird brains, just from the intelligent turn of its head.

Next week, national trees!


PS. I also now have another reason to like Canada. They are listed as having no national bird. But this is still unofficial. We are on tenterhooks to find out whether the rumours are true.

Susan Underscore


UPDATE: April 24

For those with a bent for linguistic tidyness (rather than mere keyboard simplification) check this out.


From time to time one must consider changing one’s name. When I think about all the things you could change in order from “change most frequently” (say facial expression, posture, location) to “change least frequently” (say eye colour, leg length, laugh), I think name changing is down the “change least frequently” end. But, as a citizen of the modern world, that does not absolve one of the responsibility to consider the issue from time to time.

There are, of course, plenty of brightly-lit places you can go online to find out your Jedi name, your prison bitch name (clearly a highlight of the modern internet), your hip hop name, a hindu name you might like, your ninja name, or a random name from the United States census.

First name basis

But I think first, for some reason, of Blackadder. As Lord Melchett has it, “I say you are a weedy pigeon and you can call me Susan if it isn’t so.” Leaving aside the weedy pigeon part, and the fact that Melchett, admittedly while intoxicated, thought that being called “Susan” was a punishment, I think there are several good reasons to call oneself Susan:

  • It reportedly comes from some really old words that mean “lotus” or “lily”. Everyone likes a good flower reference.
  • It has a star-studded history and present. Not only is there Susan Boyle, of course, but also the absurdly foxy Susan Sarandon. Who could ever forget the Rocky Horror Picture Show? But don’t look at the the picture on her Wikipedia entry because it is not her best.
  • And Shel Silverstein wrote a song about a boy called Sue that Johnny Cash made extremely famous.

Wrap up

I assume you agree that we should dispense entirely with the middle-class pretension of a second name and instead leap to the nom.

As is well known, including by the sage people behind “neuroscience for kids“, it is hard to name the colour a word is printed in if that word itself is a different colour. So it is tough to name the colour of BLUE (and not say “blue”).

This, of course, makes me think about how much easier it is to recognise some symbols that to say what they are. Amongst them must be all those occasionally extremely-helpful keys on your keyboard, viz: forward and back slash (\ /), greater and less than signs (> <), the two forms of colon (; :), hyphen (-), and the three types of brackets ({}[](). So tiny in themselves. Just one little byte. But so long to describe.

And out beyond those, there are the keys whose names are more mysterious, and whose reason for even being on the keyboard is uncertain: carat (^), tilde (~), pipe (|), and back quote (`), although I am sure each has their own enthusiastic, if modestly sized, group of adherents.

I predict the keyboard will be gradually rationalised. And when the revolution comes, some keys will be just immediately chopped, some will be on the bubble (perhaps left on for another few years to prove their worth), and the rest will be retained until the next linguistic revolution.

Some keys (notably @, ., :, and /) have got a new lease of life from the internet. Lucky fellows indeed. The web has also helped boost ), -, : and ; with emoticons (which raises the question of whether emoticons are universal and I could have an emoticon “conversation” with someone in China without a common traditional language, but that is a digression for another day)

The French also do a good job of helping along the comma since they use it instead of a decimal place in their numbers, but its place was secure in any case.

I reckon the four truly odd ones (`~|\) are not long for this world. We can probably also dump {, }, [ and ] without any trouble. On my keyboard they have foolishly grouped themselves in pairs onto four keys – they would have done better to split up and share space with a more popular key. ^ shares the 6 on my computer, which means that its future is probably secure. Plus the fact that we would have to find another symbol for “to the power of”, which would be a hassle.

On the bubble for inclusion or otherwise is my actual favourite, and therefore my proposed last name, _. The underscore:

  • It is creative, as in musical score.
  • It is well-supported, as in underwire.
  • It relates to a band that a friend of mine plays with from time to time, the Underscore Orkestra
  • It is important for emphasis in text, as in underline.
  • It is under-utilised, under-appreciated and misunderstood. So it needs all the support it can get.

PS There are also odd things like elipsis that aren’t on the keyboard as a single key, and must find themselves sorely under-used as a result, but that is for another day. I note in passing that Jane Amazon Ellipsis would also be a Very Good Name.

Around the Russian world

A sort of book review of The Trans-Siberian Railway, a Traveller’s Anthology, edited by Deborah Manley

This book is a delight. Published in 1988, it is a collection of edited excerpts from accounts of the great train journey across Russia, drawn together into a sampler. Many of the stories are old (some from before the train opened in 1903 when it took months to get across the world’s largest country, and many in ten years after its opening), many newish (mostly around the time of the Second World War), and a few more recent accounts,
especially from the 70s.

The book gathers together the material thematically first (the idea for the train and the dream, the train itself, preparations required, its role in war, some of the people involved), and then works broadly chronologically, with comments collated by region as we follow the train from Moscow in the West to Vladivostok in the East, plus a little at the end on the East to West trip and the time in China.

The book includes many excerpts from books that are hard to find or obsolete, including that stalwart of all 20th century European travellers, the Baedeker, – a close-typed swarm of advice and information of variable reliability about the train, the country, the people and the amenities. And it is no stranger to direct, negative reviews. The hotels of Siberia are “almost invariably dear and indifferent”, says the edition of 1914. “A disturbing feature is the inevitable concern of ‘sing-song’ in the dining room, which usually lasts far into the

A touch of local knowledge

Which causes me to digress for a moment to talk about guidebooks.

The question of the acceptability of guidebooks has been around as long as they have been in print, I suspect. As EM Forster has Mr Emerson say in Room with a View (well, at least in the movie):

We residents [of Florence] sometimes pity you poor tourists not a little. Handed about like parcels from Venice to Florence to Rome, unconscious of anything outside Baedeker, anxious to get done and go on elsewhere. I abhor Baedeker. I’d fling every copy in the Arno. Towns, rivers, palaces, all mixed up in an inextricable whirl.

The world has come rather far from Baedeker with modern guide books. Endless coverage of even trivial destinations, clear layout, quality photographs, regular updating, internet add-ons, and, most important, their positive tone. In the Lonely Planet world, even the most squalid hellhole has a charming cafe, a rustic hotel, or an ancient ritual of interest to the visitor, written up by a likely-impecunious backpacker after his/her half day in the city en route to more attractive parts.

I recall a description from the Lonely Planet for Russia of Nogliki, a town in the middle of Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, describing it in sufficiently fond terms as to suggest it worthy of a pause if one was passing through (a rather unlikely journey, to be fair, since the delights of Northern Sakhalin were not notable), and boasting of it playing host to the world’s slowest railway.

This was, of course, an earlier edition. The editors have now realised the error of their ways in painting up the rustic, railway charms of Nogliki. And just as well, since I can report from personal experience that Nogliki is (or at least was, at the time that description was current) in fact a charmless locale with nothing to detain the visitor at all, except the public transport timetable that was created by a malignant gnome to ensure all visitors are forced to hang around the dead-end train station far longer than any sane free-thinker ever would. The world’s slowest railway had slowed sufficiently further that its trains could no longer be perceived to be moving at all.

Which is all by way of saying that something has been lost along the way, I think, in the move from Baedeker to Lonely Planet, in the change from the excitement and uncertainty of not knowing whether the guidebook is reliable to a powerful reliance on “the lonely” as the Bible of travel information. Oh how often have I met travellers who cursed the very name of Lonely Planet for the fact that a hotel it mentioned was closed, noisy or more expensive than promised.

The idea that a mere book could remove the uncertainty of travelling seems unusually naive and even arrogant, as if all the delights and horrors of any place could be parcelled up, summarised and contained within a few thousand words and a map or two, and that the whole would condescend to remain the same until next time the travel book updater happened to pass through.

Of course, this is not what modern travel guides say, introduced, as they are, with warnings about the fundamental unrealiability of the information contained therein. Reliable enough to be useful, but not so reliable that it could be our fault if something goes wrong. Besides which, things being different from the description on the tin is precisely the point of travelling.

But it does seem to me the underlying philosphy of modern travel guides tends to be empowering and positive. Every country has some charm and delight, and travelling is something sensible, informed, worldly types – normal people like you – do every day.

The underlying philosophy of Baedeker seems rather different. You get the impression the editors consider themselves doing an unpleasant public service. Travel is a nasty, dirty business but, if you persist against our reasoning, you had best be prepared, and so we offer you the following information, including direct advice on how to maintain your personal security. Travellers must always be on guard against thieves, and avoid carrying large sums of money.

It is desirable to carry a revolver in Manchuria and in trips away from the railway.

You can also see this trend in the accounts in the book. Those travelling at the start of the railway are unusually committed – travelling for work, or exploring, or both. As we get later on in to the century, leisure travellers emerge and travel writers whose market is the adventurous but not foolhardy. By the time you have Bob Geldof on a package tour on the train (his account is from 1978), you know that it is basically mainstream.

End of digression about guide-books.

The power of the brand

There is much fabulous material in here showing the development and change of attitudes towards Russia including this gem, from John Bell’s “Travels from St Petersburg in Russia to Diverse Parts of Asia” near the turn of the century (when optimism about Russia’s potential seems to have reached its apex amongst Western industrialists).

For my part, I think that, had a person his liberty and a few friends, there are few places were he could spend his life more agreeably than in some parts of Siberia.

The global brand of the trans-Siberian is also obvious from even very early accounts. As Ms Manley has it:

Perhaps no other journey on earth has captured people’s imagination as powerfully as … the Trans-Siberian

Authors consistently report that the reaction of their friends on hearing that they were taking this train trip was envy and excitement. This was 100 years ago, but I can report a similar reaction in modern times from my own train travels. There is something powerful about this train that makes it more appealing and attractive without any significant effort by its owners at advertising, except perhaps a few accounts of its astounding comforts at the time when it first began. Perhaps it is the appeal of exotic Russia herself: a long train ride across Canada is exactly that – a long train ride. A long train ride across Russia is something more mysterious, interesting, risky. You could get lost in all those trees. The limits of authority and civilisation seem to ebb away far more quickly in Sibera than they do in Alberta or Sasketchewan.

The thrill of the train ride also demonstrates to me that often the meaning attached to experiences can be divorced from the experience itself, i.e., the story we tell ourselves about an experience is what matters, and that story is not necessarily correlated with the facts. From my experience, it would be quite possible to write up the trans-Siberian as a very long ride on a non-too-comfy seat, the endless days punctuated with short
visits to dreary towns filled with people who look like they haven’t moved far from the days of the serfs. But in practice, everyone I ever met on the trans-Siberian (and most of the authors in this book) treated the train ride like an adventure, and every surly carriage attendant, depressing town, or unexplained halt in the wilderness was just another stitch of excitement in the cloak of mystery and unpredictability in which they wrapped their travels on the train, or in Russia in general.

I recently read Tiziano Terzani’s brilliant “A Fortune Teller Told Me” (you can read my sort-of book review here). He too was taken by the dream of the train, and influenced by early accounts of its magnificence:

To me, the term ‘Trans-Siberian’ has always suggested something demode and romantic.

But when he finds the reality rather different, he ascribes the variance to grubby economic development, rather than sullying the dream of the train.

Such is the strange destiny of the Trans-Siberian Railway. Built as a line of defence against China … it has now
become the supply line which enables the poor Russians … to dress in trashy Chinese clothes. Instead of the
duchesses and spies and generals and adventurers of half Europe, today the Trans-Siberian carries the
descendants of Genghis Khan along the path of ancient Mongolian conquests. But they too have come down
in the world, travelling not as conquerors but as peddlers.

As Ms Manley’s book demonstrates, the global brand has attracted many famous people to take the trip and record their thoughts for posterity. It is a shame that there is not more in the book from Russians who have built, maintained or travelled on this railroad. But Ms Manley’s book does include contributions from a large number of Western luminaries including Walter Duranty (a famous New York Times journalist and winner of the Pulitzer Prize), Peter Fleming (whose “News from Tatary” remains a travel adventure classic), George Kennan (explorer and war correspondent), Fitzroy Maclean (all-round over-achiever – British), Laurens van der Post (ditto – South African), Eric Newby (genius British travel writer) and Paul Theroux (ditto – American).

All of these accounts are worth a read. Paul Theroux, in particular, was interesting for his lack of enthusiasm. He was clearly in an especially bad mood on these train travels. Even the romance of the journey could not compensate for being late getting home for Christmas after a long absence, and overwhelmed by the short-day gloom, the dankness and the dirt with which he found himself surrounded.

Speaking of the reputation of Siberia reminds me of one of my university Russian lecturers, John Godliffe, RIP, who edited a book of excerpts from Russian literature that mention New Zealand. Most famously, there is a character in a Chekhov story, I think it was, who is heard to say, “It’s barbarity. It’s New Zealand!”, suggesting that perhaps the Siberians might have had a rather darker view of the attractions of these fortunate isles than Europeans had of travels in Siberia.

Get going

A map of the train’s course shows how southerly the route actually is. Obviously because no one much lives anywhere else in Russia (although presumably where people live is also influenced by the course of the train). The huge distances and lack of navigable roads to me shows the relevance of Lenin’s famous comment in reference to his then just started Bolshevik Revolution “if the trains stop, that will be the end”. Without the railroad, there is no unified Russia, but even then there are many, many places the railroad does not go.

I note that Russia recently opened the final segment of a road that goes all the way across the country, and the then President tweeted about the completion of the trainline from Tynda to Yakutsk. Siberia is a ways out of town, but Yakutsk is seriously in the boondocks. There is also talk of a train from Yakutsk to the Russian Pacific coast by 2030, and a tunnel underneath the Bering Straits, meaning a continuous rail journey would be possible from London to North America via Russia. Fun times. And cause for a whole new collection of trans-Chukotkan travel stories, I suspect.

What you can count on

It was not an auspicious start. The hangover was continuing to build, an unwelcome guest left over from Wednesday night’s ritual end-of-year poisoning. I still had an enormous pile of stuff to fit in the car for the holiday road-trip, leaving infeasibly little room for provisions, and I realised that I had forgotten some key items in any case, despite the veritable mountain of non-key things.

Then the car stalled outside the supermarket and clicked ominously rather than giving the more reassuring starting noise when the key was turned. One didn’t need to be a lip-reader to understand the frustration of the woman in the car behind.

What is this all about

My car is a red 1990 Lada Niva, a boxy, two-door, four-wheel drive beloved of off-road enthusiasts. They were more common in New Zealand in the 1980s and 90s – I am told the Dairy Board once offered them to farmers as part-payment for milk that had been provided to Russia, which was not able to make payment using more traditional means. These days, however, they are lamentably rare, the victims of vicious rust, and design and manufacturing that reflects 1960s Soviet standards rather than those of a more modern and capable age.

This car would never attract the sobriquet “reliable”. “Hardy” or “rugged”, for sure. “A good vehicle for do-it-yourselfers”, absolutely. A very cheap and uniquely stylish ride it is as well. And it sports a tag that proudly says “Made in the USSR”, something that can not often be claimed these days. But it is certainly not reliable.

Its simple dashboard has few of the gauges that trouble or inform modern drivers. It does feature both a fuel gauge and fuel light, warning of near-term problems if fuel cannot be found, and an engine oil pressure light, warning of a very near-term troubles if oil cannot be discovered. Befitting their different levels of priority, they are different colours – red for oil disaster pending, yellow for fuel stop required soon.

When I turn right, the fuel needle slides to the left and the yellow warning light comes on. Happily, this is easily repaired by turning left. The speedometer bounces around erratically and noisily, leaving a driver to interpolate the actual speed as the mid-point between the low and high readings in any given second: the only time it is still is when the car is stopped, when the speedo reads a constant 12 kmph.

The electrics are deeply unpredictable. The horn sometimes beeps at the merest touch of the panel on the middle of the steering wheel, but most of the time it cannot be convinced to sound at all except by sustained pressure on the middle of the panel, rendering it useless for all practical purposes. In any case, the noise the horn makes is so meek that it would likely be mistaken by other drivers for a passing duck, perhaps calling to its comrades on the wing.

The purpose of the switches sported proudly by both internal lights is unclear to me, since the lights generally stay off regardless of their position. But sometimes the lamps do find a way to secure some electrons through the maze of dirty, coloured wires that snake from the battery through the internals of the car, and light up when the door is open or sometimes when it is not. Sadly, even on these occasions, the light they give off is insufficient for any practical purpose. But I appreciate the effort they make all the same.

It is a car that one needs to listen to: it trys to tell me how it is getting on. I now identify a series of normal noises (rhythmic thrum at high speeds (i.e., over 90kmph), rattle from accelerator between two and three thousand rpms, open-throated roar from the exhaust at precisely two and a half thousand, rattling from a loose screw in the left-hand door). New noises might indicate problems. I have been listening for some thousands of kilometres to the transmission, trying to decide if there is an unusual noise, but so far, if there is, it is inaudible compared with the noise from the engine and the gearbox. I dream of installing new, thicker heat-resistant padding around the central console and in the footwells to enable easier conversation while in transit.

The stereo gives no impression of going at all, but sometimes when the car is turned off, it lets out a short melody, a tiny burst of electronica in my day, presumably designed to reassure me that the stereo is actually operational. I consider this delusional at best, and deceptive at worst since at no other time does the stereo make a sound.

A boat for the people

Lada is, as is well known, a brand of the Russian car company Avtovaz. Ladas are churned out by the millions by 110 thousand employees at a factory in a town called Togliatti – a city of some 720,000 souls on the eastern side of the Volga in southern European Russia.

(Delightfully for those who have a soft spot for the Communist International, Togliatti was called Stavropol until 1964 when it was renamed in honour of Palmiro Togliatti, the longest-serving secretary of the Italian Communist Party. Quite an honour, I suspect.)

The Lada is a conversation point for those who see it, and so I have been told many times that Lada is basically a rebadged Fiat. The Avotvaz company was established by arrangement with Fiat in the late 1960s. Russian engineers borrowed (and improved) the design of many Fiats to make their Ladas, but in fact the marvelous Lada Niva whose company I currently enjoy was the first model that Avtovaz’s engineers designed on their own. I understand that they continue to make the Niva and it continues to be popular in Russia and in other places where owning a hard-wearing, cheap automobile is de rigeur.

While I enjoy its present, I fear for the future of this automobile. For I think Avtovaz will face ongoing difficulties with the perception and reality of unreliability. I only have to mention that I own a Lada for the eye-rolling and jokes about its legendary crapness to start. And it isn’t clear that this thorough-going badge of low quality will be quickly or ever resolved. I do wonder what brand value was attached to the billion dollar purchase of 25% of Avtovaz in 2008 by the same folks who own Renault.

Expecting reliability

All of which makes me muse about reliability, particularly when driving in my car.

The etymology of the word suggests that the word “rely” in the sense of depend upon is an additional meaning added in the sixteenth century to a word that originally meant “to fasten” or “to attach” from the Latin word religare (“to bind” – like the word ligament).

To say something is reliable means that one is able to rely on it, by which we mean it is reasonable to expect that the something will perform its function in a particular way. Reliability does not say anything necessarily about the quality of the performance: I can say that my starter motor can be relied upon to fail regularly. So reliability is fundamentally about predictability and, as I understand it, this is the engineering usage of the term.

But often in normal speech, “reliability” means both predictability and proper performance. If my starter motor is reliable, that means that I can confidently predict that my car will start when I turn the key. Reliability is therefore the opposite of uncertainty. Reliable things do what they say on the tin. And they reduce uncertainty and vanquish unpredictability in the world. Thus my definition of reliable in this context is “consistent high performance”.

Coming at the definition from the other end, having an unreliable car means that one needs to be able to rely on other things to get to where one is going. One must have systems in place for when the unreliable car performs as expected and fails to work. I can tell you from personal experience that there is no better value for money than that offered unreliable car drivers by an AA membership. I can also tell you that one must have an understanding mechanic, one should keep the number of a friendly tow-truck operator in one’s phone, and one should always travel with flexible plans – an unreliable car and a committment to timeliness are not good bedfellows.


What I find most amazing about reliability is none of this. It is that, as a society, we consider it entirely reasonable to expect consistent high performance from all the myriad complex machines that we use every day. Our society rests on machines and systems that work so well there is real surprise and geniune consternation and surprise when they fail.

Think about a random selection of some of the things we rely on each day. Vaguely in order of reliability from most reliable to least, a short version of such a list might include:

  • Airplanes
  • Electricity supply
  • Toasters
  • Cars (except mine)
  • The software on a computer

Generally there is no reason to question or even to think about the performance of these everyday items. I need know nothing about how the airline ensures my airplane can fly, nor how my car, telephone, television, electrical sockets, computer, toaster or rice cooker operate. The objects of everyday life are created by others, cheap, safe, convenient and simple to use. If one does not work as expected (a bump in the flight, a crash of the operating system) I am justified in being concerned and in complaint, despite the fact that these wondrous inventions are not far removed from magic in their reliabile conquering of complexity and difficulty in every day life.

Let me expand. My car, old and crap though it is in many ways, is an amalgam of multiple complex systems, each of which is amazing in its own way. It has a battery, connected to a (troublesome) starter motor, which kicks off an engine, that draws in petrol from the gas tank mixed with air in the carburettor, and then generates numerous small controlled explosions – several thousand every minute – that generate both energy to turn a crankshaft, which goes through the gearbox and transfer case to make the wheels turn, and waste gases that go through the exhaust system and out the back of the car. As well, it has brakes (both for foot and hand) that slow things down, suspenson on every wheel to make for a more comfortable ride, a water and oil cooling system to keep the engine lubricated and at an appropriate temperature, and an enormous number of electrical systems (including the heater, headlights, cigarette lighter, horn, indicators, hazard lights, and windscreen wipers front and back) to make operations safer, better or more comfortable. The seats lift up to let people into the back, and they can be adjusted back and forward. The windows wind down and up. The boot opens for storage. Under the hood it carries a full set of tools and a spare tyre, in the event that some simple problem can be fixed by the roadside.

Within each of these systems there is also remarkable complexity. The starter motor alone has 48 numbered components on the coloured breakout diagrams I have that make the Lada seem both beautiful and mysterious on the inside. Here they are: Armature shaft, starter motor cover bush, pinion stop collar, driving pinion/clutch inner ring assembly, thrust half-ring, overrun clutch roller, overrun clutch casing, operating lever pivot pin, plug, relay armature drive link, operating lever, drive-end cover, relay armature return spring, starter motor relay armature, front relay flange, relay holding winding, relay plunging winding, armature core bar, relay core, core flange, contact disc, relay cover, relay contact bolts, commutator end cover, positive brush holder, starter motor cover bush, end float shim, lock washer, clamp bolt, casing, stator winding series coils pinout, commutator, stator winding series coil, stator pole, starter motor housing, armature core, limiter plate, drive ring, hub/clutch outer ring, overrun clutch hub liner, ignition switch, alternator, battery, starter motor, starter relay, guide bar, plunger, flywheel.

The windscreen wiper – a humble system, one might thing – has 51 numbered components.


I know that my car is a complex beast, and that the Avtovaz motor company is not famous for reliability. I understand that my car is old, and that it has multiple systems that depend on each other. I have experienced many times that the failure of something very small – like the solenoid in the starter motor – will lead to the failure of the whole. I can see that even the windscreen wiper, simple in theory, is bewilderingly complicated in practice. Asked to build one myself, I would be entirely at a loss. The complex component in my even old and crap car is the result of years of engineering development, refining the questions of how to make a perfect windscreen wiper down to a very fine art.

And despite all this knowledge, I am always frustrated and annoyed when my car breaks down, when my phone won’t get my email, or when my iPod fails to sync properly. (It seems that the less control I have over something, the more annoyed I get when it does not meet my expectations for reliablity: I blame myself if my toast is burned). But it also seems to me, when I am in a more contemplative frame of mind, that society might just expect too much.

So what is my point? I guess this is a plea for you to think just a little more about the systems you rely on, to marvel a little more at the wondrousness of the things you take for granted everyday, and to realise that even the most basic of daily simplicities relies on a remarkable web of sophisticated development that spans the efforts of generations of toiling engineers who just want to make your life more predictable.

I expect nothing less from you.

Making sense of travel

These are my travel diaries in reverse chronological order. Not much logic at all there, I am afraid. In case it helps, the trips looked liked this:

April – June 2001 Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, China

July – October 2001 China, Russia

February – April 2002 British Columbia, Amsterdam, Italy

April – October 2003 Italy, Turkey, Georgia, Central Asia (the ‘Stans), Russia, Mongolia, China, Laos, Thailand, Singapore, NZ

These days I tend to think the photos are cooler than the words. Your mileage may vary.